Sports | June 9, 2021 2:08 pm

Major League Baseball’s Sticky Substance Controversy, Explained

After a terrible press conference for Gerrit Cole yesterday, "Spider Tack" is firmly under the microscope

gerrit cole
Gerrit Cole is under scrutiny after a particularly bad press conference this week.
Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Gerrit Cole pitched a perfect game (figuratively speaking) during his first-ever press conference with the New York Yankees. That was back in December 2019. He unveiled a faded sign he’d kept since he was in middle school — “Yankee Fan Today Tomorrow Forever” — thanked Curt Flood and Marvin Miller, two key figures in the labor history of baseball (and big reasons why Cole could sign a nine-year, $324 million contract decades later), and aced every question the hard-to-please New York media sent his way.

Cole has been steady on the mound ever since that introduction, pitching to a 2.55 ERA over 24 starts. He’s the Yankee ace, their stopper in a rocky season, and arguably the second best pitcher in the league after Jacob DeGrom of the New York Mets. With that success comes breezy, largely forgettable brushes with the media. Cole can be outspoken on trends in the game, but he’s generally a relaxed guy and well-liked by teammates. There are few “gotcha” moments with beat reporters.

Which is why it was such a shock to see a brutally uncomfortable Cole stumble through an answer to a yes-or-no question yesterday. After a writer for The New York Post asked Cole directly whether he has ever used Spider Tack while pitching, the 30-year-old pitcher stuttered for several seconds — one Twitter commenter likening his noncommittal mumbling to Succession‘s Cousin Greg — before settling on “I don’t quite know how to answer that, to be honest.”

Cole recovered a bit, but still could only offer a waffley, bird’s eye take on the inquiry: “There are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players to the last generation of players to this generation of players, and I think there are some things that are certainly out of bounds in that regard, and I’ve stood pretty firm in terms of that, in terms of the communication between our peers and whatnot.”

What the hell is going on here? Well, Cole’s disastrous press conference is an inflection point for MLB’s new “sticky substance-gate,” a controversy that has rumbled along discreetly for years, but is finally receiving attention this year, due to the league’s insane lack of offense. As has been widely covered, hitters are seriously struggling right now. The league-wide batting average hasn’t been this low in over 50 years, and batters — many of them striking out three times a game — will shatter the total strikeout record this year (for the 15th consecutive year).

Rob Manfred, MLB’s front office and owners throughout the league are worried about their product. Strikeouts don’t just mean less offense, they have a deleterious impact on pace of play. It’s a brutal cocktail for the game, and it’s why MLB is determined to make pitchers less dominant. They’ve flirted with moving the bound back, they’ve put runners on second base in extras (no doubt hoping to get in the heads of hard-throwing bullpen pitchers), but now they’re addressing the various substances pitchers use to manipulate the baseball.

The main culprits? Pine tar, spit, a mixture of sun lotion and rosin, hair gel, vaseline, and lately — most infamously — Spider Tack. None of it, no matter how many times you’ve seen a pitcher get away with a curious dark stain on the brim of his cap, is legal. But the game has let it go on. For a while, it was in everyone’s best interest to do so. There are two reasons a pitcher would want extra grip on a baseball: A) control and B) spin. The hitters can make their peace with reason A, because it means a pitcher is less wild (i.e. less likely to hit them in the head with a fastball). And the managers won’t tattle on a pitcher from the opposing team, because they know their pitchers are doing the same thing.

But this is all about to change. Umpires — who usually only intervene when there’s a direct complaint from the dugout — will soon be checking every pitcher before he steps onto the mound. This could have a dramatic, immediate effect on the ability of batters to draw walks (because pitchers will lose control), but even more so on their ability to draw hits, as pitchers will lose spin, a stat quantified by revolutions per minute, or rpm. Pitchers have dramatically increased rpm in recent years by holding onto the ball longer. The stickiest substances, like Spider Tack (which is used by strongman competitors to heave 300-pound stones), allow the ball to cling to a pitcher’s fingers, then rise or break as close to the batter as possible. In other words: it makes pitches absolutely impossible to hit.

It’s notable that last week, after news broke that MLB was going to start checking baseballs, Cole had his worst outing of the season. He gave up five runs in a 9-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. Minnesota Twins slugger Josh Donaldson asked: ‘Is it coincidence that Gerrit Cole’s spin rate numbers went down (Thursday) after four minor leaguers got suspended for 10 games?” So the firestorm began.

Make no doubt: sticky fingers or not, Cole is one of the best pitchers in the game. (It will be telling to see how poorly mediocre pitchers perform without help.) In fact, even with seven more years left of his career, Cole can be considered one of the best pitchers in baseball history. And that’s a history that includes endless manipulation of balls: the use of sticky substances and scuffing by players, yes, but also actions taken by the league. MLB teams pay a man in Delaware to collect mud at a secret bank along the river every year (this is a true story), and take the shine off their baseballs. From year to year, MLB also messes with the weight and seams to impact the “bounce” of the ball off the bat.

The game is often talked about in sacred terms, but its tools are anything but. They are always evolving, always changing, as its players look for ways to find advantages, win games, and (can you blame them?), sign nine-year, $324 million contracts. Tonight, Gerrit Cole has an opportunity to change the narrative. He’ll be pitching against Donaldson and the Twins, and likely without Spider Tack. Stay tuned for the press conference after the game.